Hilary Swift is a freelance documentary and investigative photojournalist. Originally from Vermont, Hilary graduated from the Brooks Institute with a degree in Visual Journalism. She was a participant of the Eddie Addams Workshop in 2014 as well as the New York Portfolio Review and the Missouri Photo Workshop in 2015. She has been an intern for The Free Lance-Star and The Reno Gazette Journal. Currently, Hilary contributes her amazing talents to important stories at The New York Times as a freelance photojournalist. Hilary talks to atlas about how she got her start in photojournalism and the incredible and powerful story about Sergeant John Peck who is featured in her “Looking Forward” series.
How did you first become interested in photography?
Hilary Swift: It was not anything I consciously chose to be interested in. I think my interest in photography came both out of being interested in too many things and my desire to try to see something beautiful in the everyday. From a very young age, I was always trying to cheer up everyone around me. I grew up in a small town and my friends and I all had a lot of angst. I started photographing everyone and everything around me when I was in high school. I think it was a way to try to cheer people up — make them notice either how beautiful they were or how interesting the world could look. I doubt I was any successful at it, but I tried! I was also really interested in current affairs so I think I saw it as a way to be more involved in that.
When did you know you wanted to pursue photojournalism?
When I first went to college in Iowa, newspaper readership was going downhill and I did not have enough confidence in myself to pursue photography in any form. Regardless, in my first semester I got involved with the college newspaper and a punk blog and soon found myself driving four or five hours to photograph concerts or waiting for politicians to come to campaign at our school. Once I decided I wanted to become a photographer, I transferred to Brooks Institute in California. It was not until my third semester that I really chose to fully commit to journalism. I realized that I was much more interested in communicating reality than I was in anything commercial or constructed.
I started photographing protests along with a photo-story and began to understand not only the power that those types of images could have but also how much I enjoyed feeling like I was contributing to something — like I could help shine light on an issue. It was very difficult for me to actually voice my interest in becoming a photojournalist. I do not have a lot of self confidence and it took me a long time to be able to feel like I could even call myself one. I still sometimes feel uncomfortable with the title as if I’m still not accomplished or skilled enough to call myself one. It is a bit ridiculous.
I was lucky enough to be one of two photo interns with The New York Times this past summer (2015). After the internship, I chose to stay in New York because surviving as a freelancer in New York had become my dream once I decided I wanted to pursue photojournalism. I love going to work every day and experience something new or learn about a new topics or individuals.
Your “Looking Forward” series is a powerful and moving body of work. It resonates with a lot of people. Tell us a little bit about this project. How did this project come about? Who is the subject of this series and how did you meet? What inspired you to shoot this series? What did you take away from this series after it was completed?
“Looking Forward” is a project that I began while interning with the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I met Sgt. John Peck while on an assignment for the newspaper and was immediately interested in doing a longer story on him.
The photos were taken mostly between John’s home in Fredericksburg and the Veterans Affairs center in Richmond. John makes the trip at least once a week down to the VA for physical therapy. He is trying to learn how to walk again with his prosthetic legs. John is currently on the short list for a double arm transplant. He lost his limbs after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Three limbs were lost as a result of the blast and the fourth was amputated after he contracted a flesh eating fungus.
At the time I began working on this, I was going through a gnarly break-up and transition from being a college student to a working professional. Spending time with John kind of gave me a wake up call on how important having a good attitude is to staying positive and happy. It also exposed me to a different side of the war — what happens after coming home. My brother also did a tour in Afghanistan the same year that John sustained his injuries. I think this was partially one of the reasons that I was so interested in spending more time with John.
In the next few years I will be leaving New York and hopefully trying to move into documentary work. I love New York and I’m really enjoying what I am doing here now but I also know that I love being outside of the city and interacting with others in situations that are both more familiar and unfamiliar to me. I am from a small rural town surrounded by farmland. I spent 17 years dreaming of seeing the rest of the world. At 23, I don’t intend to stop in the next state over.
Photography is still a historically male-dominated industry. Why do you think that is still true today? What do you think women can do to break into the ranks?
Although it is true that in the past photojournalism may have been more male dominated, I think the field is changing. I do not have any statistics to support this but it seems I know more and more women who are “up and coming.” There are certainly many more female role models in the industry now than there were 50 years ago but I think that can be said for every industry. My advice to women for “breaking into the ranks” is the same as it is for men: work hard, be nice to everybody, and don’t be afraid to fail a couple of times.
Where do you get your inspiration? Any photographers whose work you admire?
My inspiration comes from a lot of different places. I am just as inspired by literature and art as I am by the work of photographers. I think half the reason I had the courage to pursue photojournalism is because I fell in love with the lyrics of a few musicians and saw their shows and decided that if they could make a living being a musician than I could do photojournalism. Sometimes if I’m feeling really stuck creatively I’ll just go to a punk show or even a classical show — something where a lot of passion involved and just spend time being surrounded by a large group of people who, if just for a few hours, are driven mad by what is happening on stage. There is something to be said in drawing inspiration from sources totally outside of the format you create in.
That said, Paula Bronstein’s photo essay on the women burned by lye probably had the most impact on me and my decision to pursue photojournalism. I saw it in high school and it really made me think about what it must be like for women living in those areas and how different the culture is. It stuck with me then and I still think about it a lot now. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s story on domestic violence also had a big influence on me as did the work of Brent Stirton and Diana Markosian who both came to my school to lecture. I am also really inspired by my closest friends who often drive me to try harder and try new things. They also keep me very grounded.
If you had one piece of advice for an aspiring photographer, what would it be?
I do not know if I am in a position to give advice for aspiring photographers as I am just trying to be one myself. I guess I would say be nice to other people. So much of the work we do sometimes deals with people that are not nice, so do not be one of them. Everyone deserves respect and the more you show it and have it for others, the better. Also be open and pay attention to what is going on around you. Stories and connections are everywhere. You just have to take notice.
Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Hilary!
For more information about Hilary, visit her website. All images © Hilary Swift.